The Quintessential Bush

Anne Kornblut and David Stout in today’s New York Times:

On the eve of the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush returned to the devastated Gulf Coast today promising to continue federal assistance, and eagerly pointing out signs of progress.

“It’s amazing, isn’t?” he told a gathering under a sweltering sun. “It’s amazing what the world looked like then and what it looks like now.”…

… Mr. Bush delivered his remarks at an intersection in a working-class Biloxi neighborhood against a carefully orchestrated backdrop of neatly reconstructed homes. Just a few feet out of camera range stood gutted houses with wires dangling from interior ceilings. A tattered piece of crime scene tape hung from a tree in the field where Mr. Bush spoke. A toilet seat lay on its side in the grass.

Kinda sums it all up, don’t it?

Mr. Bush praised the optimism and grit of the people of Mississippi, and he reaffirmed his belief in neighborly cooperation as well as government help. “A year ago, I committed our federal government to help you,” he said. “I said we have a duty to help the local people recover and rebuild. I meant what I said.”

For truly effective rebuilding, he went on, “there has to be a partnership with the federal government and the state and local governments. Here’s my attitude about the partnership. You know better than the people in Washington the needs of your communities. I’d rather listen to local mayors and county commissioners than folks sitting in Washington, D.C., about what this part of Mississippi wants.”

That sounds grand, but the President’s attitude about “partnership” seems to me to resemble King George III’s relationship with his North American colonies. As I wrote here, the feds wrote the big contracts for cleanup, often passing up perfectly good local companies in favor of businesses with the right political connections. Jordan Green at CounterPunch provides some examples:

Other instances of fraud and overcharging appear to have taken place because the government awarded advance contracts to large, out-of-state companies that had little notion of how to do business in areas hit by the hurricane.

Immediately after Katrina struck the Gulf, Paul Adams, a Yazoo City, Miss. businessman who specialized in setting up temporary classrooms, called his suppliers and the Mississippi Department of Education, anticipating that students would be displaced. Told by the department that FEMA would supply temporary trailers to house the students, he eventually discovered that the Army Corps of Engineers was obligated to give the work to Akima, an Alaska native corporation.

Obligated is an interesting word, wouldn’t you say?

Adams alleges in a lawsuit that he tracked down 450 temporary classrooms, and submitted a bid to Akima as a subcontractor, which in turn used the information to win a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers. Later Akima Senior Project Manager Al Cialone went to Florida to inspect the trailers and then purchased them directly, cutting Adams out of the deal, according to the lawsuit.

The deal troubled the GAO. It reported to Congress in May that “the Corps accepted Akima’s proposed price of $39.5 million although it had information that the cost for the classrooms was significantly less than what Akima was charging. … We believe the Corps could have, but failed to, negotiate a lower price.”

David Machado, a staff engineer with Necaise Brothers Construction Co. in Gulfport, Miss., also expressed frustration about getting cut out of reconstruction work in his home state in testimony before the House Government Reform Committee.

“We have all felt the injustice,” he said. “From truck drivers to chainsaw operators, we have had to scrape and claw to be afforded an opportunity to rebuild the very place we call home.”

Necaise Brothers is one of about a half-dozen subcontractors that have filed suit against AshBritt, complaining that the politically connected Florida company withheld payment or “looted” work from smaller firms. AshBritt has been sued for a total of at least $9.5 million by companies that have crossed its path in the hurricane reconstruction zone along the coast of Mississippi. Perhaps that should come as no surprise considering that the company landed contracts valued at more than half a billion dollars from the Army Corps of Engineers between September 2005 and March 2006.

State and local governments have been criticized for failing to come up with timely plans, and I don’t doubt some of that criticism is justified. But it’s also true that the feds rejected some plans for being too expensive and tossed them back to the locals for revision. Apparently the locals are supposed to guess what their spending limits are. Further, requests for funds must creep through a bureaucratic labyrinth before reaching someone who can actually make a decision. This is not partnership. The feds are treating state and local governments as supplicants, not partners.

Some say the way to get around government bureaucracy is to privatize disaster recovery. But there’s a problem with that, too. Naomi Klein writes in today’s Los Angeles Times:

… it’s time to take a look at where the privatization of disaster began, and where it will inevitably lead.

The first step was the government’s abdication of its core responsibility to protect the population from disasters. Under the Bush administration, whole sectors of the government, and particularly the Department of Homeland Security, have been turned into glorified temp agencies, with essential functions contracted out to private companies. The idea is that entrepreneurs, driven by the profit motive, are always more efficient than government.

We saw the results in New Orleans: Washington was weak and incompetent in part because its emergency management experts had fled to the private sector and its technology and infrastructure had become positively retro. In a crisis, government looks frighteningly inept ( “doing a heckuva job”) while the private sector can seem modern and competent, at least by comparison.

In truth, when it comes to reconstruction, contractors are hardly wizards. “Where has all the money gone?” ask desperate people from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf Coast. One place a great deal of it has gone is into major capital expenditures for the private corporations. Largely under the public radar, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on privatized disaster-response infrastructure: the Shaw Group’s new state-of-the-art Baton Rouge headquarters, Bechtel’s battalions of earthmoving equipment, Blackwater USA’s 6,000-acre campus in North Carolina (complete with paramilitary training camp and 6,000-foot runway).

This state within a state has been built almost exclusively with money from public contracts, yet it is all privately owned. Taxpayers have absolutely no control over it.

These companies provide their services to the public free of charge as long as Congress is paying their bills. But Klein argues that we are moving in the direction of “user pays” disasters, for reasons she outlines in her Los Angeles Times op ed. (In the future, if you are going to be stuck on a roof during a flood, be sure to have a credit card to pay for the helicopter ride.)

Some on the Right argue that the feds should have no role at all in recovery. This fellow says,

New Orleans will be re-built if the people of New Orleans want to re-build it. And if they do it themselves it will be a New Orleans they can be proud of and love. It will be their New Orleans.

If, on the other hand, they wait around for someone else to re-build their city for them, it won’t be the New Orleans they loved. It will belong to somebody else. And New Orleans will be dead.

And, of course, the fault with his reasoning is that New Orleans is a poor city in a poor state and lacks the money and resources to rebuild. But I believe it would have been better for everyone if the feds had just handed the reconstruction money appropriated by Congress to the local governments of the Gulf Coast and let them get on with rebuilding any way they wanted, with local companies and labor. Sure a lot of the money would have been siphoned off by corruption, but that happened, anyway. At least local corruption would have kept the money local; some of the pilfered profits would have been spent locally, putting more money into circulation in the communities. They’ve got enough dirty money in Washington already.

Instead, as Jennifer Moses writes in today’s Washington Post, the people of the Gulf have had to hurry up and wait.

It is a source of unending perplexity in Louisiana that so far America has spent some $320 billion in Iraq for nation-building, whereas in New Orleans, homeowners have so far seen precisely zero.

Not that there isn’t talk. A federally funded program with the Disneyfied name of “The Road Home” is due to start distributing thousands of dollars to uninsured homeowners . . . eventually. Additional billions have been poured into the coffers of the Army Corps of Engineers, whose design flaws caused the city’s levees to rupture in the first place, and through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, according to a just-released report, awarded more than 70 percent of its contracts through a no-bid or limited-bid process.

People with flood insurance or enough of their own money are rebuilding; those without, aren’t.

Even for those brave souls who rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt their homes with sweat equity, a larger problem remains: infrastructure. All but a handful of public schools are shuttered; the hospitals are so badly crippled that in case of an emergency most people assume they’ll need to drive to Baton Rouge; the courts have gone from limping along to entirely dysfunctional; the electric grid is so fragile that regular power outages are a non-event; and in many parts of town, water lines still haven’t been laid. Firefighters: Who needs ’em? Police? Oh, well.

According to Collette Creppell, chief architect at Tulane University and a former New Orleans city planner, ever since President Bush faced the nation from Jackson Square a year ago and declared that “the work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen,” New Orleanians have been holding their breath, waiting for a construction boom. But without delivery of basic services, they might as well wait until doomsday.

Individuals stuck in a limbo of waiting are wearing down from worry and depression. Yet they struggle to put their lives back together as best they can. Tony Freemantle writes in the Houston Chronicle:

The Orleans Parish coroner says the suicide rate in the city, with half the pre-storm population, has tripled. Dentists, the few that are left in the city, are reporting an alarming number of people showing up with grooved or chipped teeth, a telltale sign of grinding. People admit to drinking more, taking more drugs. The billions of dollars promised by the government for rebuilding has yet to translate into billions in building.

But for those who have chosen to cast their lot with its uncertain future, it is also a defiant city.

People freely admit to the psychological trauma they suffered, and are suffering still. They joke about suffering from “Katrina Brain” and the need for antidepressants or drink to combat it. They say things like, “I’ll never get over it.”

But they do so with sweat dripping from their brows as they haul drywall and rusted washing machines onto the sidewalk. They stand in their sweltering, gutted houses and reaffirm their commitment to their neighborhood, their city, their roots.

The American people must realize we are all New Orleanians. New Orleans is our city; the Gulf Coast is our coast. Failure or prosperity in the Gulf impacts all of us. Those who can’t feel empathy should be reminded that a swath of failed communities running across four states is an unproductive swath, a swath not adding to national wealth, a swath that will continue to be a drain on the nation’s resources. We, the People have a financial interest — a patriotic interest, even — in rebuilding the Gulf.

The President is visiting New Orleans today to participate in some events artfully staged to make him look good. They’ll set him up somewhere that looks presentable, and he’ll make little speeches about commitment and grit and that people need to be patient — rhetoric as empty as Karen Hughes’s head, and quintessential Bush. I wonder if he’ll bother to go through this charade again next year, or if (with no midterm election looming) he’ll just blow it all off.

Update: Did you know the U.S. is receiving foreign aid to help with Gulf reconstruction?

10 thoughts on “The Quintessential Bush

  1. Thanks for the link.

    I’m not on the right: I’m a Democrat and I’m quite firmly in the center.

    I’m only telling it like it is: no American city has ever been rebuilt following a great natural disaster by the federal government. It’s just never happened. Could it happen? Sure. Can the federal government help? Sure. Don’t expect either one.

    And, of course, the fault with his reasoning is that New Orleans is a poor city in a poor state and lacks the money and resources to rebuild.

    New Orleans may be a poor city and Louisiana a poor state but it has lots of rich people in it. In every historic case of urban reconstruction following natural disaster in this country the “leading citizens” i.e. the rich were instrumental in rebuilding the city. Shame them into it, incentivize their participation, whatever.

    But I believe it would have been better for everyone if the feds had just handed the reconstruction money appropriated by Congress to the local governments of the Gulf Coast and let them get on with rebuilding any way they wanted, with local companies and labor.

    So do I. Did you read the GulfGov report I linked to or the snippets from it I included? One of the biggest problems with New Orleans is New Orleans. In the poltiical environment of New Orleans handing the reconstruction money to the city wouldn’t have resulted in a reconstructed New Orleans. Don’t take my word for it—read the report.

  2. Louisiana a poor state but it has lots of rich people in it.

    Enough rich people to cough up $30 billion or more? I doubt that.

    I’m only telling it like it is: no American city has ever been rebuilt following a great natural disaster by the federal government.

    The federal government has been running relief and reconstruction programs after hurricanes for some time. Several agencies pitched in after Camille, for example.

    Regarding rebuilding: Usually after a natural disaster, government (federal, state, and local) rebuilds infrastructure and insurance and loans rebuild private homes and businesses. In the case of Katrina, however, in many places infrastructure is not being repaired, which is holding everyone else up. And lots of people who thought they were insured have been unable to collect. “How it’s been done before” isn’t working.

    In the past century (since the San Francisco earthquake) how many cities have needed to be substantially rebuilt after a natural disaster? BTW, the U.S. military took an active part in the San Francisco earthquake, both as first responders and during the rebuilding process. You can read about it here.

    But having large parts of cities destroyed and in need of rebuilding is just not something that happens a lot. And the damage done by Katrina is unprecedented in scale in U.S. history.

    New Orleans is famous for corruption, I know. Some kind of public oversight system is desperately needed no matter who gets the money.

    Are you sure you aren’t a rightie?

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  4. If only King George had had a 747 — Royal Navy One? — with which to fly over the colonies, the comparison with our King George would be perfect.

    For many Americans Katrina is already long gone, although we’re just paying lip service to the anniversary now. It seems to be a national habit to forget the past and move on. History may not let us off that easily, however. “What’s past is prologue,” wrote Shakespeare, a man who knew a thing or two about callous, uncaring leaders.

    Looking back a year later at “Bush on a Plane” : A flyover president and his broken promises. It’s frightening that this guy has more than two years left in office, two more years to fly from here to there, posturing to his heart’s content, while the country goes to hell.

  5. You still haven’t mentioned the Tulane U prof’s theory that this is all deliberate, an attempt to permanently disperse NO’s poor minority population, thus diminishing its political power and making Louisiana into a mostly white, Red state. To me that’s a crucial part of this story.

  6. Tulane U prof’s theory

    I responded in a comment a day or two ago, but I’ll do it again … I think there’s something to what he says, but there must be a lot of Republican-voting communities in the Gulf states that are getting shafted also. So although I don’t doubt Karl Rove would like to see New Orleans turn red, that doesn’t account for the whole story.

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